Reforming Question Period, Part One
Ottawa ON – Yesterday, Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton, introduced Motion #517 to reform Question Period. The odds of any of his suggested reforms ever happening are pretty slim if other MPs don’t put partisanship aside, or if the media doesn’t line up behind him.
I have known Chong since he was first elected in 2004. He is a quiet, hard working MP with a love for Canadian history and parliamentary tradition. He doesn’t grandstand or throw himself in front of a camera just to get his name in lights, but he does work darn hard for his constituents. Exactly the type of MP most Canadians would want representing them. His proposals deserve serious thought. Today, I will look at two of his six points.
I spent some 16 years, involved with Question Period on either the government or opposition side of the House and I thought it might be interesting to take a close look at what he suggests as his proposals would fundamentally change Question Period, mainly for the better. First let’s look at QP as it plays out right now on a daily basis, and then see how Chong’s proposals would change things.
To most Canadians, Question Period is that 10 sec clip on the TV news or the newspaper article that expands on the questions asked in the House. Behaviour in the House has deteriorated for years, to the point that most of what you see is theatre, IE MPs performing for the camera and that hoped for clip.
Few Canadians realize the amount of preparation involved for those 45 minutes of show time. Generally speaking, across the government, (and on the opposition side) the day starts with staff going through every conceivable news item in the early hours of the morning. Anything impacting on a minister or PMO is flagged and work started on finding out what does the minister need to know about the story and what are the answers required.
Sometime in the morning there will be a briefing session and QP issues will be discussed. Fine tuning of answers will take place and the daily QP briefing book prepared and updated. In total several hours work.
Around lunch time there will be a ministerial practice session with staff and then it’s off to the formal practice session at 1 PM with all other ministers and parliamentary secretaries present. At 2:15 when the Speaker rises and announces Oral Questions, its show time and bedlam is unleashed.
Most ministers won’t get a question, especially if the opposition is focused on just one or two issues. The present Prime Minister tries to take questions from the other party leaders. He is not required too, but out of courtesy he usually does. Questions and answers are 35 seconds long. This means the PM will spend about 3 minutes out of 45 minutes directly involved in QP.
True, Opposition MPS stand up and in each and every question demand the PM answer them. It’s a bit foolish as they all know full well that this PM or previous Liberal ones will rarely do so. Instead the appropriate minister will stand and answer.
How does Chong suggest we address some of the flaws in our present Question Period format? First he suggests we change how questions are asked. Few Canadians realize that questions are tightly scripted by the House Leaders offices. Which MP asks a question, what they ask about, what order they are asked and even the words used are controlled.
The Speaker has a list of questioners. If you aren’t on that list, you aren’t asking one, no matter how important your proposed question might be for your constituents. The exception is Friday which has generally evolved to become a regional Question Period day when MPs who don’t get a chance to ask questions in the rest of the week have a chance to get up. Providing the are on the Speakers list that day.
If you are a government backbencher, forget it. No questions for you unless it’s a lob at one of your ministers. IE the ministers office wants to say something, writes a question and answer, its approved by PMO and the backbencher stands up to applause from his side, asks the questions and the minister dutifully answers in a most positive manner.
Chong wants to give all MPs the chance to ask something in Question Period. He is asking for part of every Question Period to be set aside for uncontrolled questions. MPs from all parties stand and the Speaker decides who gets a question. I can remember this happening in the 1980s, when some of our own MPs would take on our ministers for issues in their ridings.
Think of a question that you would ask the Prime Minister today if you had a chance. Now write it in such a way that you can ask it in 35 seconds or less. Go over the time limit and the Speaker stands and your mic is cut off. How meaningful is that question that you just wrote?
Now imagine that you are a minister and try to answer your question in 35 seconds. Could you give a meaningful answer? Chong wants the 35 seconds allocated extended, at this point by an undefined amount.
Meaningful thoughtful questions force a minister to reply in kind. There will always be MPS and ministers who prefer to go over the top vocally, but a substantive question forces a minister to think before spitting out an answer.
Both of these items that Chong wants changed are valid. They give individual MPS a chance to better represent their constituents. At the same time the changes would allow your elected MPs to shake off of some of the controls their party has over them in Question Period. They might actually get a chance to represent you, which is the reason you elected them in the first place.
Stopping the media from showing the circus, will stop the circus, no?
How about a controlled desk (operated via the Speaker) to receive questions, circulate to the correct MP, get the answer and forward it back. No media grandstanding needed. Your riding gets responses without every riding needing to hear it.
Hey, do you suppose we could get Mr. Chong to represent us as well? We really need a voice in the House of Commons to represent SD&G’s interests. We wouldn’t even have to change parties. We would still have a Conservative representing us, but that would be the point. He might actually represent us.
A ringing YES to Chong’s proposals for change! QP has become a juvenile farce, and preparing for it a gross waste of taxpayers’ money…that is, of our money.